Christmas Music by Candlelight
St Paul’s Church, Birmingham: 20 December 2016
Review: Paul & David Gray
5 stars *****
Something old, something new; choral beauty with a unique performance style
Had Jeffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra’s founder and artistic director, not become a first rate choral conductor, we cannot help but think that he might have become a first rate theatre director. He has an instinct for drama and atmosphere, and a true gift for story-telling. Under his baton, Ex Cathedra is not a choir that is able stand still for too long. It likes to leave the stage, walk about, explore the acoustic and get to see the audience from different angles. St Paul’s church is a space made for this approach to performance, with its surrounding galleries and a compliant acoustic that works well wherever a performer is standing.
Tuesday evening’s concert of Christmas music by candlelight was, therefore, an immersive experience. We were given glimpses of a conventional carol concert. A tenor, off stage, launched the performance with a verse of Once in Royal David’s City. As his final note resonated away a solo soprano in a side gallery declaimed the opening of Roderick Williams’ O Adonai (1998). Soon other voices joined hers, soaring out of the darkness and cascading together down on the audience, while the body of the choir, standing at the back of the church, delivered impressive block of choral sound.
This combination of traditional and new set the tone for the rest of the evening. Ex Cathedra is a prolific commissioner of new music. Their commitment was reflected in an intriguing and beguiling choice of pieces, predominantly by 20th Century composers, many of them still living, punctuated by more traditional works.
Ex Cathedra approached the repertoire with a grounded sound, singing from their boots during more robust passages, revelling in complex walls of harmonic sound, and then caressing the audience with exquisite pianissimi. Their dynamic range is exceptional; the tone, polished, rich and satisfying.
In an evening of highlights, I was particularly captivated by Eriks Esenvalds’ Stars. With a shimmering drone provided by water-tuned wine glasses, this is a work that unfurls to an expansive melodic climax. The pacing was beautiful and the performance raised goose bumps. James MacMillan’s And lo, the angel of the lord, which kicked off the second half, again employed spacial effects, and was a work of surprising and intoxicating sensuality.
A packed house responded to the evening with enthusiasm. Getting the audience to stand up and sing at the end of the evening is a slightly cheeky way of getting a standing ovation, but the ovation was deserved and no one seemed inclined to sit down. It is easy to see why these candlelit concerts are becoming an essential and integral part of Birmingham’s musical calendar.
Conductor: Jeffrey Skidmore
Organ: Alex Mason